Irish Republican News · January 14, 2004
[Irish Republican News]

[Irish Republican News]
Deja vu

(for the Andersonstown News)

The political fall-out from Hugh Orde’s laying of the blame for the Northern Bank robbery at the door of the IRA has uncanny parallels with another meticulously planned and executed job - the break-in at Castlereagh on the evening of March 17, 2002.

That the IRA was behind the break-in beggared belief. The three-man team behind the raid wore no masks or gloves, they gained easy access past heavy security at the entrance to the building. They made no attempt to conceal their faces from the battery of security cameras outside and inside the building - not suprising, really, because the cameras had been de-activated. The trio knew their way around the building and the only one of them to speak had an English accent. Claims that the IRA had been assisted by an American chef working inside the building have never been substantiated. Undoubtedly, a chef would have been able to tell the break-in team where the HP sauce and the beans were kept; questions about how he would have been able to get the team past perimeter security, or how he would have knowledge of the rooms holding Castlereagh’s most closely guarded secrets have never been answered - although he lives openly in New York, no attempt has been made to have him extradited.

The first question traditionally asked by the IRA when considering the smallest military engagement, never mind a politically explosive high-wire operation, is this: what are the risks compared to the potential benefits? The answer was that the risks were absolutely enormous and the benefits uncertain at best - a calculation that would have seen anyone suggesting such a venture laughed out of the safe house.

All of this was reflected in the considered response at the time of UUP leader David Trimble who said he would wait to see the proof before acting, a position that was warmly welcomed by Sinn Féin’s Mitchel McLaughlin.

Trimble’s party colleague, the then Lord Mayor of Belfast Jim Rodgers, said he didn’t think the IRA was involved and added that the whole episode “stinks to high heaven”. Outgoing RUC Chief Constable Ronnie Flanagan said he would be “most surprised” if the IRA was involved, hinting strongly that he believed it was an inside job. More predictably, though, from other unionists and from the Irish and British media burst a tidal wave of hysterical recrimination which swept away common sense and objective analysis. Republicans were refusing to end the conflict; Sinn Féin weren’t fit for government.

Sound familiar? Stay with it...

Regardless of what their boss thought about the matter, the RUC went on to launch a series of highly publicised raids in nationalist areas of Belfast and Derry during which six people were arrested. Five of them were quickly - and quietly - released and one was later charged with possession of information unconnected to the Castlereagh raids, including possession of biographies of leading Tories John Major and Norman Lamont and a 1988 New Statesman article on international eavesdropping. In a statement the RUC said they were “interested in a number of mobile phones that were being used in West Belfast in the period leading up to the break-in and on the night of the robbery itself.” No more was ever heard about the mysterious mobile phones. The PSNI continued to focus their attention on republicans.

In October four people were charged after raids on their homes in Belfast once again unleashing a flood of shock-horror stories about death lists and prominent targets. A local businessman became the fifth person charged after he rejected attempts to recruit him as an informer. Charges against two, including the businessman, were later dropped (quietly); charges against the remaining three were later substantially reduced (quietly) and a case which many legal observers believe to be pitifully thin is being persevered with (watch this space).

The investigation was frontloaded with the sensational and highly publicised raid on the Sinn Féin offices at Stormont during which a single Windows floppy disc and a CD-Rom were taken in a laughably brief search that nevertheless involved a mob of boiler-suited officers and saw parliament buildings ringed with Land Rovers. At a press conference in November, Acting Deputy Chief Constable Alan McQuillan said the Castlereagh investigation had taken the PSNI “into the very heart of the Provisional IRA.” Impressive stuff, but no-one was ever charged with IRA membership. Ian Paisley Jnr of the DUP said, “The revelations by ACC McQuillan that the police have now uncovered active IRA spying activity is another signal that their political counterpart in Sinn Féin is not fit for government. Lives have undoubtedly been saved by police actions.” The floppy disc and CD-Rom were (quietly) returned to Sinn Féin.

To this day, no-one has been charged in connection with the Castlereagh break-in. Not surprisingly, the Castlereagh episode has all but disappeared from the political discourse.

Against that background, it might be expected that another setpiece shocker involving an elaborately plotted and daringly executed operation followed by virtual political meltdown would give politicians and journalists pause for thought. Not a bit of it - even as the Land Rovers were lining up again outside republican homes in West Belfast in time for the evening news, the same siren voices were raised making precisely the same noisy and apocalyptic political predictions.

Last Friday’s press conference at which Hugh Orde duly pointed the finger of blame at the IRA was a confusing and contradictory hotch-potch of claims and allegations about which no evidence was offered. Mr Orde claimed that he was making the statement for “operational” reasons, without actually telling us what those reasons were; in the next breath he said that he was making the statement because media speculation was getting in the way of the investigation and he wanted to bring it to an end. Here’s the quote: “It now makes sense that we make an attribution because it makes operational sense, and it will allow us to get on with the enquiry unhampered by some of this unnecessary speculation.”

The naming of a culprit by a police force which has not amassed enough evidence to warrant an arrest, never mind charges, is so damaging to fairness and due process that it boggles the mind. And impressed as we are by Mr Orde’s dedication to the operational considerations of a single investigation, one wonders whether the questionable short-term benefit of bypassing the concept of innocent until proven guilty is worth the risk of ending the peace process. Hugh Orde says that is not his concern - he is fond of repeating the mantra that he’s not a politician, he’s a cop. But he revealed at the press conference that he was naming the IRA to end media speculation. If doing something to get the press off your back is not a political act, then perhaps he’s in need of a new dictionary.

Mr Orde also said he was pointing the finger at the IRA because “Northern Ireland is a unique policing environment” which “inevitably gives rise to questions as to who or what organisations committed what crimes, and how did they plan it, and who organised it. This would not happen anywhere else in the United Kingdom.” Really? Is Mr Orde telling us that the Met didn’t come under pressure after the Brinks Mat robbery? That English detectives don’t come in for some rough treatment from Fleet Street during the course of major investigations? Can it really be only here in the North that hacks get excited by big stories? Can it really only be the local press that wants cops to tell them something they can write about? The reality, of course, is that journalists put policemen under huge and sustained pressure - it’s their job.

When we talk about the peace process, we’re talking about people’s lives, let’s be completely clear about this. And yet the standard of proof required for the PSNI - or the Independent Monitoring Commission, for that matter - to cast judgement is not only massively less than even Diplock courts require, it is something about which we are allowed to know absolutely and precisely... nothing.

Mr Orde told us: “But what I can say is, on the basis of the investigative work that we have done to date, the evidence we have collected, the information we have collected, the exhibits we have collected, and bringing all that together, and working through, it is in my opinion the Provisional IRA were responsible for this crime and all main lines of enquiry currently undertaken are in that direction.”

So, on the basis of i) investigative work; ii) evidence collected; iii) information collected; and iv) exhibits collected, the PSNI have not been able to make one single arrest or to get one single republican into an interrogation room (not the hardest of tasks), but they are able to state that the Provisional IRA is guilty and trigger a political reaction exactly the same in effect as if Martin McGuinness been tried and sentenced to 25 years. In the Alice in Wonderland world that we inhabit today, the Chief Constable is able to speak ex-cathedra without producing a grain of evidence, and even the unelected members of the International Monitoring Commission have an effective veto over political progress. Newspaper leader writers treat Hugh Orde’s opinion (he was careful to point out that it was only his opinion, although you wouldn’t know it) as though it were incontrovertible fact and have constructed fantastic political scenarios on that flimsy foundation to the point where a media consensus has been arrived at and to depart from it is to run the risk of being condemned as mad, bad, a fellow-traveller, or all three. If all the papers agree that it was the IRA, if the Chief Constable says it, if the political parties with the exception of Sinn Féin say it, if the British government says it, if the Irish government says it, then it must be true.

The dogs on the street and all that.

In fact, the only thing that can be said with any degree of certainty is that nobody knows. The press is in makey-uppy heaven - that legal limbo when no-one has been arrested or charged and they can (and do) write whatever balderdash takes their fancy. The PSNI knows nothing; if they did they would swoop immediately and decisively, such is the career-threatening depth of their humiliation. The political parties clearly know nothing as they readily admit to have taken their cue from the PSNI. The two governments know nothing because they’re hearing the same things which Hugh Orde is hearing, ie ‘high-grade’ intelligence of such quality that not a single arrest has been made and not a penny has been recovered.

And guess what? We don’t know either. But we’re happy to be among the very few to admit as much.

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© 2004 Irish Republican News